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“(Ghost) Riders in the Sky: A Cowboy Legend” is a cowboy-styled country/western song written in 1948 by American songwriter, film and television actor Stan Jones.
A number of versions were crossover hits on the pop charts in 1949, the most successful being by Vaughn Monroe. The ASCAP database lists the song as “Riders in the Sky”, but the title has been written as “Ghost Riders”, “Ghost Riders in the Sky”, and “A Cowboy Legend”. Members of the Western Writers of America chose it as one of the Top 100 Western songs of all time.
The song tells a folk tale of a cowboy who has a vision of red-eyed, steel-hooved cattle thundering across the sky, being chased by the spirits of damned cowboys. One warns him that if he does not change his ways, he will be doomed to join them, forever “trying to catch the Devil’s herd across these endless skies”. Jones stated he had been told the story when he was 12 years old by an old cowboy friend.
More than 50 performers have recorded versions of the song. Charting versions were recorded by The Outlaws, Vaughn Monroe (“Riders in the Sky” with orchestra and vocal quartet), which topped the Billboard magazine charts, by Bing Crosby (with the Ken Darby Singers), Frankie Laine, Burl Ives (two different versions), Marty Robbins, The Ramrods and Johnny Cash. Other recordings were made by Eddy Arnold, Peggy Lee (with the Jud Conlon Singers), Christopher Lee, and Spike Jones and his City Slickers. Gene Autry sang it in the 1949 movie, Riders in the Sky. Jones himself recorded it for his 1957 album Creakin’ Leather. Children of Bodom, Impaled Nazarene and Die Apokalyptischen Reiter have also made covers.
The melody is based on the song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”
The original version by Stan Jones was recorded in late 1948. Fellow songwriter Eden Ahbez sent the song to Burl Ives, who recorded his own version a year later.
Burl Ives recorded the song on February 17, 1949, and the song was released by Columbia Records as catalog No. 38445. The recording first appeared on the Billboard charts on April 22, 1949, lasting six weeks and peaking at No. 21.
The version by Vaughn Monroe and His Orchestra with Vaughn Monroe and The Moon Men on vocals, was recorded on March 14, 1949, and released by RCA Victor Records as catalog No. 20-3411 (in USA) and by EMI on the His Master’s Voice label as catalog No. BD 1247, HN 3014, HQ 2071, IM 1425 and GY 878. The recording first appeared on the Billboard charts on April 15, 1949, lasting 22 weeks and reaching No. 1. Billboard ranked it as the No. 1 song for 1949.
The Bing Crosby version was recorded on March 22, 1949, and released by Decca Records as catalog No. 24618. The recording first appeared on the Billboard charts on May 6, 1949, lasting 6 weeks and peaking at No. 14.
The Peggy Lee version was recorded on April 18, 1949, and released by Capitol Records as catalog No. 57-608. It reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Most Played By Disc Jockeys listing without appearing in the retail Top 30.
Spike Jones recorded the song on May 24, 1949, and it was released by RCA Victor Records as catalog No. 20-3741. Copies of the original release, containing lyrics ridiculing RCA stockholder Vaughn Monroe, are rare. The recording parodies the original Monroe recording, injecting much of Jones’ quintessential humor along the way.
Gene Autry recorded the song for Columbia Records on August 16, 1949, which issued as Columbia 20635, backed with “Cowboy’s Trademarks” (recorded August 27, 1940), and sang it in his 1949 film Riders in the Sky released through Columbia Pictures.
Opening track of Scatman Crothers’ 1956 album, Rock ‘n’ roll with Scat Man.
Theodore Bikel sang a humorous version of the song in his An Actor’s Holiday album (1956).
The song was recorded by the Norman Luboff Choir and released on their 1960 album, Songs of the Cowboy.
Lawrence Welk and His Orchestra released an instrumental version in 1961, featuring Neil Levang on guitar, which spent 3 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, reaching No. 87.
Curtis Lance (Dick Jensen) and the Uniques recorded an instrumental version in 1961.
The Brothers Four recorded a driven, up-tempo version. with edited lyrics and truncated to three stanzas, for their third LP, B.M.O.C.: Best Music On/Off Campus for Columbia Records in 1961.
The Sons of the Pioneers included the song on their album Cool Water put out by RCA Records in 1961 under the name “Riders in the Sky”.
A twangy guitar instrumental version by The Ramrods — featuring the sounds of mooing cattle, bronco cheers, and sound of cracking whips — was recorded in late 1960 and it made the Billboard Top 30 in 1961, as well as the UK Top 10. This was covered by UK band The Scorpions (not the German rock band) on the “Parlophone” Label.
The Ventures made a surf rock cover of the song in 1961. A live performance of the tune, featuring surf rock band The Original Surfaris appeared in the 1962 compilation album titled Surf’s Up! At Banzai Pipeline. The performance incorporates the riff from the Jørgen Ingmann hit, “Apache”.
Bob James, recording as The Bob James Trio, included it as the last track on his very first album Bold Conceptions released in 1962.
The Spotnicks, a Swedish instrumental rock band, covered this song on their 1962 album, The Spotnicks in London, Out-a space.
Frankie Laine recorded the song on his 1963 album, Wanderlust.
Frank Ifield recorded the song for his 1963 UK album, Born Free (Columbia 33SX 1534).
Dick Dale recorded a surf-rock version for his second album, King of the Surf Guitar, released in 1963.
Californian singer Peter Tevis recorded a version with orchestral and choral arrangements by Ennio Morricone for the 1965 album, Un pugno di…West.
Baja Marimba Band recorded this song on the album, Watch Out, in 1966.
Tom Jones recorded this song opening the album, Green, Green Grass of Home, in 1967.
Takeshi Terauchi & Bunnys recorded an instrumental version of this song on their 1967 album, The World Is Waiting For Terry.
Davie Allan and the Arrows recorded two versions, one on the 1967 Blues’ Theme album (Tower Records) and the other on the 2008 Moving Right Along album (Spinout Records).
Jimmy Wakely, a cowboy singer, recorded the song on Shasta Records.
Burl Ives made a second version of this song for his 1969 album Got the World by the Tail.
Elvis Presley recorded it in June 1970 at MGM’s soundstage in Culver City, California.
Susan Christie released a version on her 1970 album, Paint a Lady.
Roy Clark recorded an instrumental version for his 1973 album Roy Clark/Superpicker, an album of all instrumentals. The song reached No. 27 on the Hot Country Singles chart that year.
Former REO Speedwagon guitarist Gary Richrath quoted the melody of the song during his unaccompanied guitar solo on the band’s 1977 live album, Live: You Get What You Play For.
Riders in the Sky recorded this song for their debut album, Three on the Trail, in 1979 and on several of subsequent albums.
Johnny Cash made a recording of the song in 1979 for his album, Silver, which was faithful to the original, and peaked at No.2 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart. Johnny Cash also performs the song in his guest appearance on The Muppet Show in 1980.
Country singer and rodeo cowboy Chris LeDoux recorded a version of the song for his 1980 album Old Cowboy Heroes. LeDoux’s version swaps the placements of “yippie yi yay” and “yippie yi oh”, and refers to the cowboy instead as a “cowpoke”.
A version by The Shadows reached No. 12 on the UK Singles Chart in 1980. This version was a semitone higher than the original.
Australian band, the Fabulaires from Adelaide did a cover version on their Apocalypso 12″ E.P. circa 1980.
Rock band Outlaws made a recording on their 1980 album Ghost Riders that left out the last verse. They also released a live version of the song, recorded in 1982 at the King Biscuit Flower Hour radio show, which appeared on Greatest Hits of The Outlaws… High Tides Forever.
Dean “Red Elvis” Reed recorded the song on the album Country in 1982 in East Germany and Czechoslovakia.
A Sesame Street version titled “The Dirtiest Town In The West” with altered lyrics first aired in 1982.
Vic Damone recorded a version on his 1982 album Over The Rainbow.
Psychobilly band King Kurt released a version in 1983 on their album Ooh Wallah Wallah.
The Danish cowpunk band Disneyland After Dark (later just D-A-D) recorded the song “Riding With Sue” in 1986 for their album Call of the Wild where the riffs from the melody were used in an intermezzo.
The Chaps released a Scottish parody version called “Rawhide” in 1982.
Peter, Paul & Mary recorded a parody of the song titled “Yuppies in the Sky” on their 1990 album Flowers and Stones.
Terry Scott Taylor and Daniel Amos recorded a version in 1990 that appeared on The Miracle Faith Telethon compilation album.
Impaled Nazarene recorded a black metal version of the song, which was released on the Sadogoat EP in 1993. It was subsequently included in the CD version of their bonus album, Tol Cormpt Norz Norz Norz.
The Alberta Celtic rock group Captain Tractor recorded an unusual version for their 1994 album Land. New lyrics describe the frenzy of corruption in a prairie town at the climax of a real estate bubble. Rather than fire-and-brimstone Christian imagery, the warning takes the form of vaguely Zen lamentations: “The winds still blow/The rains still fall/The trees don’t seem to care at all!”
Buckethead played a dub style version of the song during his Giant Robot album tour in 1994.
Dick Dale once again covered the song for his 1994 album, Unknown Territory. For a time, this version accompanied a NASA montage as part of the preshow video on Space Mountain at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom.
Duane Eddy brought his electrified “twangy guitar” sound along with a sax edition by Jim Horn to a 1996 version on an Curb Album Ghost Rider.
On the 1997 album, VH1 Storytellers, the song was recorded live with Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. In that performance, Willie Nelson misses the start of the third verse because he forgets the text, and ends up switching the third and fourth verses.
Deborah Harry, lead singer of Blondie, recorded a trance version of the song, which features on the soundtrack to the film Three Businessmen (1998). The song (produced and arranged by Dan Wool and Pray for Rain) is available free on her website.
Christopher Lee recorded a version of this song on the album Devils, Rogues & Other Villains, released by Nikolas Schreck in 1998 on his Wolfslair label.
The Blues Brothers performed the song in the 1998 movie Blues Brothers 2000. This version appeared on both the movie’s soundtrack and the compilation album The Blues Brothers’ Greatest Hits of All Time. Similar to the “Rawhide” scene in the first movie, the band is mistakenly booked at a bluegrass festival (announced to the crowd as “The Bluegrass Brothers”). Buster Blues’ (J. Evan Bonifant) harmonica parts for the film were recorded by John Popper of Blues Traveler.
In 1999, Ned Sublette included a merengue rendition on his album, Cowboy Rumba.
The German “Western Metal” band Dezperadoz (featuring a member of Sodom) covered the song on their 2000 album, The Dawn Of Dying.
Dolan Ellis, Arizona’s Official State Balladeer since 1966, included this as the only cover on his CD, Tall Tales, Lost Trails & Heroes, released in 2000. He has sung the song throughout the nation and in 20 foreign countries, solo and as a member of the New Christy Minstrels, always telling the folk tale of Stan Jones, the Cochise County cowboy.
The Texas band, Ghoultown, recorded a version of this song on their album Tales from the Dead West (2000).
Concrete Blonde recorded a version for their last album, 2004’s Mojave.
John Frusciante, Michael Rother, and Josh Klinghoffer performed a short instrumental version of the song live in 2004.
German heavy metal band, Die Apokalyptischen Reiter, released a version titled “Ghostriders in the Sky” on their 2006 4-track EP, Friede Sei Mit Dir.
California-based Me First and the Gimme Gimmes covered the song on their 2006 album Love Their Country This cover was later used in 2017 in racing video game Forza Horizon 3’s trailer for its Hot Wheels Expansion.
Art Greenhaw, Grammy Award-Winning guitarist, producer and leader of The Light Crust Doughboys, recorded a world music fusion version of this song on the album Lone Star Sitar and released in 2006 on the Greenhaw Records label.
During the credits of the 2007 movie Ghost Rider, a rock cover by the band Spiderbait is played. An instrumental version is also heard at points in the film.
Finnish melodic death metal band Children of Bodom covered this song under the title ‘Ghostriders in the Sky’ and have released it on the special edition of their 2008 album, Blooddrunk.
Judy Collins, featuring the Nashville Rhythm Section and Ghost Riders Chorus, covered “Ghost Riders in the Sky” on her 2010 album Paradise.
Florida/Utah death metal band, Gorlock, covered it on their 2011 EP titled Despair is My Mistress.
The song is the opening track on Roswell Rudd’s album, Trombone For Lovers.
The character of Granddad Brown in the Irish comedy series Mrs Brown’s Boys briefly covered Ghost Riders in the Sky in the 2011 Christmas special episode “Mammy’s Ass”. The scene involves Granddad singing the song whilst Agnes hits him over the head with a metal tray, testing a crash helmet (which Granddad’s wearing) her friend Winnie is meant to be testing.
A track on Drop The Lime’s 2012 album Enter The Night used the instrumental of “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky”.
“Outsider” music star, The Space Lady, featured it on her GREATEST HITS LP. (2013, Night School Records)
Screaming Orphans covered on the album Lonely Boy. (2011)
In 2015, a lower tempo version of Johnny Cash’s cover was used on the announcement trailer for the forthcoming Space-Opera RPG, Mass Effect: Andromeda.
Monster truck Black Stallion uses it as its theme song.
Country artist Ray Scott (singer) covered Johnny Cash’s version of this song on his EP, “Roots Sessions, Vol. 1” which was released in 2015.
Chrome Division covered Johnny Cash’s version of this song on their 2011 “3rd Round Knockout” album.
Devil Driver covered Johnny Cash’s version of this song on their 2018 “Outlaws ‘Til the End: Vol. 1” album.
Versions in various genres have also been made by the following artists:
All-American Boys Chorus
Boston Pops Orchestra
Scary Bitches (UK goth rock)
Shebeen (North Ireland underground music, as “Ooh Ah Up the ‘RA, or The SAM Song”)
The Tubes (under the track title, “Cowboy Fee & The Heifer’s Dream”)
Youn Sun Nah (on her album Lento)
Czech versions titled “Ďáblovo stádo” by Rudolf Cortéz released in 1956, and by Waldemar Matuška in 1981.
Czech version titled “Nebeští Jezdci” by Taxmeni & Roger Latzgo released in 1991
Estonian-Canadian musician Jüri Lipp translated and recorded a surf rock version in Estonian in 1968.
A Finnish version titled “Aaveratsastajat” was written by Kullervo (born Tapio Kullervo Lahtinen) and it has been recorded by several popular artists including Henry Theel ja Metro-tytöt, Kari Tapio, Danny, Tapani Kansa, Reijo Taipale, and Ismo Alanko.
Juha Vainio wrote an alternative, humoristic version titled “Hirvenmetsästys” (The Moose Hunt). Pertti Metsärinteen yhtye recorded it in 1970.
An instrumental jazz version by Kalle Kalima on the album High Noon released in 2016.
A French-language version titled “Les Cavaliers du Ciel” was released by Les Compagnons de la chanson in 1949.
French guitarist and singer, Gill Dougherty, also released a version on his 1990 album, Live In Bourges.
In 1992, another French language version titled “Où tu iras” was released by Les Naufragés, on their album A contre-Courant.
In 1949, a German-language version titled “Geisterreiter” was recorded and released by East German entertainer, Rita Paul & Her Cornel-Trio. In the same year, a version was released by Gerhard Wendland.
Additional German-language versions have been released by surf-punk-electro band, Mikrowelle, and television entertainer, Götz Alsmann featuring Bela B of Die Ärzte.
An instrumental version was done by the Austrian band “da Blechhauf`n” in 2012.
An Italian-language version of the song, titled “I Cavalieri del Cielo” was recorded by famous Italian singer Gino Latilla in 1952.
A Lithuanian-language version of the song titled “Jupi Ja Je” was recorded by Adolfas Jarulis ir Estradinės melodijos in 1971.
Brazilian artist Milton Nascimento recorded a Portuguese-language version under the title “Cavaleiros do céu” released on his 1981 album, Caçador de Mim.
In 1966, a Spanish-language version, “Jinetes en el cielo”, was recorded and released by the Mexican group, Los Baby’s.
Mexican singer Pedro Vargas also recorded a version.
The popular singer from Spain, Raphael, also released a Spanish version in the 1970s. The lyrical subject was changed to reflect a cowboy doomed to ride for eternity for breaking a young girl’s heart. The song ends happily when the girl saves him from that horrible destiny by crying and praying for him then letting a rose fall on his grave.
Mexican singers (and actors) Manolín and Shilinsky (find them in Wikipedia in Spanish) recorded a comic version.
Iskre – Nebeski Jahači (Ghost Riders In The Sky) 1965